All wind turbines perform the same task, which is to generate electricity from the wind; but wind turbines come in many different shapes and sizes, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Some turbines are designed for individuals while others can power entire towns. Below are some of the common wind turbine types.
Wind turbines were first developed for individual use, especially in rural areas where electric utilities were unavailable. Jacobs brand wind turbines were a common sight in the Midwest until the 1940s, when government-funded projects finally brought utilities to outlaying areas. These turbines continue to provide free electricity to its owners. In Illinois, some residents have opted for personal wind energy systems, especially in the far suburbs of Chicago where there are fewer wind obstructions. Many small turbines also power homes in the rural states of “Tornado Alley,” where severe storms often disrupt power.
Aside from their overall small size, these turbines are distinct in that they often use steel lattice-framed towers akin to their wind engine predecessors. Others are erected upon a single pole, often anchored by support cables. They are available in a range of styles and power output capacity. Installing a wind turbine for a home can be an expensive and daunting task, often met with disagreements from neighbors and local government.
Though slow to start, large-scale wind turbines developed to become reliable alternative sources of energy. Grandpa’s Knob, Castleton, VT was home of the Smith-Putnam Turbine, the first Megawatt-output windmill. After suffering a cracked rotor, however, the project was abandoned as materials were rationed for World War II. NASA and the Department of Energy both created turbines in remote areas of the West and Hawaii for testing during the 1960s and 70s, and several key developments were made in Denmark and Britain during that time.
California was the first state to create fields of wind turbines for their grid and is currently the leading state in power output from turbines. Their early turbines, however, came with problems. Because of their relative inefficiency, thousands were constructed at an astronomical cost. Furthermore, they were constructed near a natural habitat for birds, and their open-lattice tower framework encouraged nest building; but their fast-turning rotors made them a hazard, leading to thousands of dead birds (it sounds tragic, but think too of the millions of animal lives lost in oil spills or nuclear meltdowns over the decades).
The early 2000s saw a worldwide increase in wind turbine usage. Costa Rica is currently poised to be the first nation to run on all-renewable energy sources and become “carbon neutral.” Although more than 80% of its energy comes from hydroelectric dams, their mountains provide perfect placement for a large number of wind turbines.
Anemometers are probably the better-known vertical-axis wind mechanisms, but lesser-known are vertical-axis wind turbines. These turbines perform the same function as their horizontal-axis counterparts, but with the distinct advantage it will turn in winds from any direction and with any amount of force without the need of special controls. Its distinct disadvantage is that it cannot be turned away from dangerously high winds.
There are generally three types of vertical-axis turbines: the Savonius, in which chambers or cups capture the air (like an anemometer); the Darrieus, in which two or more curved rotors (built similar to that of an airplane wing) are mounted to a shaft (popularly nicknamed “eggbeater” turbines); and the traditional turbine, in which a cylinder fitted with the same thin, wooden slats as those found on wind engines.
There are a few vertical-axis turbines in Illinois belonging to private companies and individuals, but none on the utility-scale. Few, if any, such turbines are connected to the power grid in the United States. Several turbines of this type have been designed and put to use in experiments, but not pursued by the large wind turbine manufacturers. The world’s largest Darrieus turbine is located in Quebec, Canada.
Though not very common, some wind engines were redesigned to generate electricity rather than pump water. Arguably, the most famous example would be the wind dynamo of Charles F. Brush. His engine successfully charged batteries in his basement to power hundreds of light bulbs in his mansion. That turbine gained national attention when it was featured in Scientific American.
The first Jacobs wind turbines were also wind engines. But unlike Brush's dynamo, it proved to be an unsuccessful attempt. The Jacobs brothers concluded that the annular sails of a wind engine did not turn fast enough to generate direct current (which was the standard at the time). But because of their failure, they went on to create the iconic wind turbine design we are more accustomed to seeing.
Others have experimented with both wind engines and annular sail turbines, but are often unsuccessful. There are few modern examples of wind engine turbines in the world.
The idea of using traditional custom windmills to produce electricity rather than grind grain first came about in the late nineteenth century by Danish meteorologist and teacher Poul la Cour. By 1897, he had successfully fitted a Danish custom windmill with a turbine generator. He subsequently held wind tech classes there and in 1904 established the Society of Wind Electricians.
Longborough University conducted a study of traditional windmills in Norfolk Broads, UK. Rather than be razed or be restored to their original working condition (which would come at an astronomical cost), the study suggested that installing turbines within the windmills would make the most economic sense.
They concluded that the revenue generated by converting the windmills to produce electricity would help cover the cost of restoring the historic mills; they hope, too, to inspire landlords of dilapidated windmills everywhere to have them restored.
The Nolet Distillery—makers of Ketel One Vodka—is located in Schiedam, Holland. Founded in 1691 by Johannes Nolet, the distillery lies in a district known for its very large tower mills. In 2005, construction was completed on the windmill De Nolet. Although built to match its predecessors, the windmill instead generates electricity for the distillery (contrary to popular belief, it does not grind grain for the distilling process).
A Jacobs small-scale wind turbine.
Photo from Jacobs Wind Energy
The numerous turbines of Mendota Hills
Photo by Tom Haskell
The world's largest Darrieus-style turbine in Quebec, Canada.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Jacobs turbines started as wind engines.
Photo from Jacobs Wind Energy
De Nolet in Schiedam, Holland